From 1913, when the Waller Theatre was built, through 1967, when the New Waller Theatre, constructed after the original building burned down, had to be evacuated because the ceiling was falling in, people in the Laurel area were able to enjoy dinner and a show, right in their hometown.
That classic combo will be available once again, when the Laurel Historical Society presents dinner and a screening of the 1942 movie “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The movie, which won Academy Awards for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay, is “one of the most popular and beloved movies of all time,” said historical society president George Denney, who chose to feature it.
To conclude the evening, author Michael Nazarewycz will talk about his just-released book, “Historic Theaters of Delaware.”
The event will be held Saturday, March 16, at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Laurel. Tickets are $40 per person and reservations are due Friday, March 8.
Nazarewycz wrote for several years for Way Too Indie, an online, independent music and film reviewer. A resident of Townsend, he founded the MOT (Middletown, Odessa, Townsend) Film Society in 2014.
He was prompted to write his book by the realization that the theaters he went to when he was growing up were all closed. “I had an idea for a writing project that prompted me to look into the histories of those theaters, and the more research I did, the more unique stories I found about them,” he said. “I expanded the theater list, discovered even more stories worth telling, and from there it grew from my early list of about two dozen theaters over a 25-year period to 150 theaters across 150 years.”
Among the theaters that Nazarewycz writes about is the Waller. According to his book, the Waller was owned by R.H. Waller. When it burned down in 1940, Waller vowed to rebuild and the New Waller Theatre was opened just a year later.
Nazarewycz reports that during the late 1930s, the Waller was among Delaware theaters that sponsored Bank Nights, which he describes as a lottery of sorts and very popular during the depths of the Depression.
“The Waller signed an agreement with a national Bank Night outfit to run the game there,” he said. “When general questions about the legality of Bank Nights were raised, the Waller terminated its deal. The national organization sued the Waller for breach of contract, but in the process called attention to itself and the state eventually deemed Bank Nights to be illegal, ending their run in Delaware. The Waller came out fine.”
The theater also held drives to support the nation’s efforts in World War II. Throughout the war, it held copper drives, offering free screenings for those who participated. And on June 21, 1944, it was among 15 First State theaters that held a war bond drive. At the time, newspapers reported that the statewide drive was the only event of its kind in the U.S.
But a little more than two decades later, what would be the theater’s last screening came to an abrupt end. Nazarewycz writes: “On the night of July 10, 1967, about one hundred patrons were inside the Waller. One child yelled when he noticed a crack opening in the ceiling. Patrons escaped unharmed as the ceiling collapsed behind them. Children volunteered to crawl through the rubble to look for anyone who may have been trapped; no one was found. The Waller would not reopen.”
“Historic Theaters of Delaware” also mentions the Palace and Layton theaters in Seaford and the Sidney Theater in Bridgeville. Thomas Ayers bought the Palace in 1933, and then built the Layton and the Sidney. The Layton was among the 15 theaters that participated in the 1944 war bond drive.
“It was during the Sidney build in 1948 that Ayers suffered a heart attack and was forced to retire from the exhibition business,” Nazarewycz writes. “In stepped his son, nineteen-year-old Layton, to assume the leadership reins. The family movie business, which at one point grew its own corn for popping, went on to last until 1984.”
In his talk, Nazarewycz will discuss his book and the process he went through to gather information for it. Copies of the book, published by The History Press, Charleston, S.C., will be available from the author for $20.
If you go:
The Laurel Historical Society will hold a dinner Saturday, March 16, at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Laurel. The evening will start at 6 p.m. and the World War II romance “Casablanca” will be shown through dinner. Author Michael Nazarewycz will talk about his new book, “Historic Theaters of Delaware,” following dinner. Tickets are $40 and are available through Friday, March 8. For information, visit the historical society website, laureldehistoricalsociety.org or its Facebook page.
L-pic- This photo of the Waller Theatre was taken in 1920 or 1921, judging from the movies that are advertised. An upcoming Laurel Historical Society fundraiser will feature the author of a book about Delaware’s theaters. Photos from the Laurel Historical Society.